Football: New season, same problem

Crystal Palace 2 Bolton Wanderers 2
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By Paul Newman

Crystal Palace 2 Bolton Wanderers 2

SOME OF the faces were different but the story was all too familiar for Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday. While Terry Venables' team look capable of scoring plenty of goals in the First Division, Palace's new head coach must know already that his fortunes will depend largely on whether he can plug the defensive gaps that were so exploited by Premiership sides last season.

The first half here was like any number of Palace's matches in their fall from the top flight. While they showed plenty of promise going forward, gaps appeared in their defence with alarming regularity.

Neil Cox, Jimmy Phillips and Dean Holdsworth might all have scored before the latter gave Bolton the lead after 32 minutes. Palace's defence failed to close down the former Wimbledon striker and Kevin Miller, the goalkeeper, barely moved when Holdsworth struck a curling shot into the corner of the net from 25 yards.

Most Premiership attacks would have killed off Palace by half-time. As it was, Bolton's profligacy - again demonstrated when Holdsworth missed a good chance immediately after the restart - allowed the home side back into the game.

Matt Jansen and Sasa Curcic responded with well-taken goals and if Bruce Dyer's finishing had matched his impressive work outside the penalty area Bolton would have been dead and buried long before the end. However, Arnar Gunnlaugsson scored a deserved equaliser in injury time, taking advantage of some more slack defending to shoot home from 20 yards.

While he will know that Palace's defensive shortcomings must be solved promptly, Venables does at least appear to have the tools with which to do the job. The problem appears to be one of organisation rather than individuals, provided David Amsalem, Israel's captain, comes up to scratch as a left-back replacement for Dean Gordon, who has gone to Middlesbrough. Palace are still completing the formalities of Amsalem's transfer from Beitar Jerusalem.

Venables was in an upbeat mood after the game. "It's disappointing to let in a goal so late because I couldn't see Bolton getting back at us once we had got in front," he said. "But they are an experienced side and we dived in a bit for their two goals. I thought we did quite well and it was much better in the second half when we showed a lot of spirit."

Although Colin Todd was relieved to see the late equaliser, Bolton's manager thought his team had let Palace off the hook. "Overall I was disappointed we didn't win it," he said. "We were easily the best team in the first half and could have more than doubled our 1-0 lead."

Like Palace, Bolton have largely kept their squad from last season and are one of the favourites for promotion. Holdsworth and Nathan Blake will be a handful for most First Division defences, while Todd appears to have unearthed another highly promising Dane in Claus Jensen, a pounds 1.6m summer signing from Lyngby. His clever runs from midfield regularly caught Palace out and created several scoring opportunities.

Palace's summer recruits include Amsalem, two young Argentinians in Pablo Rodrigues and Cristian Ledesma, two Australians in Nicky Rizzo (from Liverpool) and Craig Foster (from Portsmouth) and two Chinese players, Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai, whose transfers are expected to go through this week. So much for Venables' complaint that too much imported foreign talent is not allowing homegrown youngsters to progress through the ranks.

One of Palace's best performers on Saturday was a graduate of the youth team, Hayden Mullins, who in the oppressive heat sensibly let the ball do most of the work. While some of those around him all too often disappeared up blind alleys, Mullins was always looking to keep the game moving by playing the simple pass.

With new recruits waiting in the wings and Neil Shipperley, Marcus Bent and Michele Padovano all about to return from injury, Palace have no shortage of attacking talent available. Now the challenge for Venables is to build a team that can stop goals as well as score them.

Goals: Holdsworth (32) 0-1; Jansen (49) 1-1; Curcic (60) 2-1; Gunnlaugsson (90) (2-2).

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Miller; Smith (Edworthy, 68), Austin, Warhurst, Tuttle, Hreidarsson; Curcic, Mullins, Lombardo; Dyer, Jansen. Substitutes not used: Linighan, Morrison.

Bolton (5-3-2): Jaaskelainen; Cox, Todd, Bergsson, Fish, Phillips; Jensen (Johansen, 80), Frandsen, Sellars (Gunnlaugsson, 73); Blake, Holdsworth. Substitute not used: Whitlow.

Referee: C R Wilkes (Gloucester).

Man of the match: Jensen.

Attendance: 19,029.